NARRATOR: "Mutou reads equations and formulas to us one by one, in his usual, unenthusiastic monotone, directly from the book. It's possible that he might be excited about what he teaches us; sometimes he can display an awkward spark of passion for it, as if he's starting to get into the material. Most days, however, are like this one. What we're covering is fairly simple, so I find it increasingly difficult to keep my concentration on him. It's not too long until my legs begin aching again, which only makes it even harder. I'm almost starting to regret walking around the city yesterday with Lilly. Since leaving the hospital, I've done very little physical exertion. Walking to and from the local corner store hardly counts. Despite Emi's attempts when I first arrived in Yamaku, I've largely given up on the idea of ever returning to my old level of fitness. I have little doubt that's why walking around town for so many hours has made me quite so sore. It's depressing, and it reminds me of one more thing I can't do since I had my heart attack. It makes me feel pathetic."

MUTOU: "Now... Ikezawa?"

NARRATOR: "It's odd for Mutou to ask Hanako a question, but not unheard of. She quickly jumps to her feet, a little startled, and immediately pins her eyes onto him. She knows that Mutou calling on her is rare, so all eyes in the classroom are going to be on her. This way, she doesn't run the risk of making eye contact with anyone else."

HANAKO: "Y-yes?"

MUTOU: "In this particular example of a redox reaction, the combustion of methane reaction actually produces one more product than is listed. That product is...?"

NARRATOR: "Even though it's a softball question, she timidly waits a bit before answering, biting down slightly on her lower lip as if to keep her concentration."

HANAKO: "Um... h-heat?"

MUTOU: "Well done. This is an exothermic reaction, with the reaction giving more heat than is put into it."

NARRATOR: "Receiving a nod from Mutou, Hanako takes her seat once again and gives a relieved sigh. A shaky start, but it's something. It'll be nice to take her out for her birthday, somewhere different from the usual isolation of her room and the tea room. With the progress she's made until now, I don't think she'll have much of a problem going to the city."

MUTOU: "Right then. For the remainder of this class I'd like you to work in groups of three or four on the problems in chapter 12. I'll be here if you need me."

NARRATOR: "Mutou sits down behind his desk, pulls some loose sheets out of a folder and starts on some kind of paperwork of his own. I thought teachers were supposed to do that kind of thing after class, not during it. Regardless, I look to my right to pick out someone to form a group with. Given the two smiling faces hovering near mine, I don't think I'm going to get much say in the matter."

HISAO: "I suppose we have a group, then."

MISHA: "Hicchan~! You want to work together? Okay, okay~! That's great! It's really been a while~!"

NARRATOR: "The class begins the process of noisily shuffling the desks around, with Shizune doing the same as she puts hers in front of mine. She's a little lucky to not be able to hear the din of the classroom, which is loud enough to cause some discomfort. Truth be told, working with Shizune and Misha is probably a good outcome - Shizune and I are pretty good at this subject, and Misha... has really nice handwriting. As I look to Misha, I notice a tall figure behind her. The shadow catches Misha's attention as well and she turns to face the dark-haired observer."

MISHA: "Good afternoon, Hanako~!"

HANAKO: "Um... hello..."

NARRATOR: "Shizune finally notices Hanako, after looking up and following the gazes of Misha and I. In quick measure, she taps Misha on the shoulder to get her attention before signing away."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Shicchan says, if you're looking for a group, you can join ours~!"

NARRATOR: "Hanako looks down and blushes a little at the offer. Out of all the people in the class, Hanako's most familiar with the three of us, so it's reasonable that she'd come to us first. Then again, her actually coming up to a group with the intention of joining them is something she apparently very rarely did before."

NARRATOR: "She leaves briefly to drag her desk over, and Shizune and Misha wheel back to me as soon as her back is turned."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "I guess we get to play again, Hicchan~! You hardly ever play with us any more..."

HISAO: "I wonder why? You two always seem to have some ulterior motive."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "That hurt, Hicchan... I'd almost think you were insulting me~!"

MISHA: "But~! It's Hicchan, so I know that you're joking!"

HISAO: "Such a great sense of humor about it; it'd be awful if someone were to take advantage of your good nature. Like making you help them with their work."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Wahaha~!"

NARRATOR: "Shizune seems excited for a second, a little surprised that I'm willing to challenge her, but when she sees Hanako coming back, she backs off with a smile. I guess the mind games are over early today. Hanako gently sets down her desk in front of Misha's. Her eyes are locked downwards, and I'm left wondering why until I look around the class. Most are busy setting up their own groups, but a few are casting curious glances at her. At this range, it's hard to tell whether that is where their interest in her ends, or if they are talking about her as well. It's strange. No one bats an eyelid when Hanako runs out of class to avoid group work, but now that she's making an effort they're staring at her as if she's done something wrong. We all move to sort ourselves out, spreading our textbooks and worksheets around the larger surface created by the four joined desks. It isn't long before the class as a whole gets down to work."

MISHA: "Hi, Hanako~! It's nice to finally work with you~."

HANAKO: "Y-yeah."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Are you the reason Hicchan has been avoiding us, lately~? Shicchan says it's a little rude, but if Hicchan wanted to spend time with a cute girl, it's understandable~!"

HANAKO: "I-I don't t-think it's like that..."

NARRATOR: "Hanako starts to fidget, unused to this kind of attention. I think that an ordinary person would drop the conversation by now, but Misha is like the antithesis of Hanako. Part of that includes being blind to ordinary social cues, while Hanako is overly sensitive to them. Because of that, Misha barrels ahead with the questions, too quickly for me to get a chance to interject and guide the discussion somewhere more comfortable."

MISHA: "Really~? So~! He wasn't hanging out with you yesterday?"

HANAKO: "N... no..."

NARRATOR: "I can feel my cover being blown already. Lilly didn't want Hanako to know that we were out buying presents for her, let alone planning out her birthday party. It wouldn't be good for her to find out."

HISAO: "Yeah I was... doing something else. You know how it is..."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Really~? I wonder what was so important, for Hicchan to blow us off like that~! If it wasn't to spend time with Hanako, then what could it be~? It's really interesting..."

NARRATOR: "Now this is starting to feel like an interrogation. I'm surprised at how Misha is able to exert such a feeling of pressure without actually intending to."

HANAKO: "W... were you with L-Lilly?"

NARRATOR: "Out of nowhere, Hanako manages to stumble on the answer. She may be dreadfully quiet and shy, but she's very intuitive."

HISAO: "W-what makes you say that?"

HANAKO: "Y-yesterday Lilly said something s-similar."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Suspicious~! Hicchan~! I demand that you explain yourself!"

HISAO: "Hey, shouldn't we be doing the assignment?"

MISHA: "But~! It's so mysterious... Even Hanako wants to know~!"

NARRATOR: "I turn to look at Hanako. It's true; from the expression on her face, it's obvious that she wants to know as well, and I think we're past the point where I could weasel out of having to provide an explanation. I apologize to Lilly in my mind. She really did want to keep it a secret, but now it doesn't seem possible any more. I feel a rush of conflicting emotions, so jumbled that I can't readily identify them, but they crash around in my head as I try to calm down and speak."

HISAO: "All right, I'll tell you. I went into town with Lilly, but it wasn't what you think. Lilly and I were... uh... for Hanako's birthday... we were..."

NARRATOR: "The cat is out of the bag. But it looks like Hanako is taking it a little better than I thought she would. A brief silence passes around our little group as Shizune and Misha look at each other sheepishly. I can tell that they didn't expect their game to turn out like this. Misha looks up to Hanako in order to apologize, then pauses. Hanako is staring at the middle of her desk and barely moving, a maudlin expression on her face. I guess I was wrong about her taking it well."

MISHA: "Hanako? I'm sorry..."

NARRATOR: "There's a few seconds' pause, but Hanako lifts and shakes her head."

HANAKO: "I-it's... okay..."

NARRATOR: "Her expression looks odd, like she's very tired. That doesn't seem natural, but it's nothing alarming. Nobody really wants to continue with the current conversation, so we open our textbooks and begin our group work. This is pretty dull. While the equations we're supposed to work out as a group will take a while, most of it is going to be boringly mechanical. It also doesn't help that while that didn't go as bad as it could have, it has left an awkward atmosphere around us. Still, we manage. Shizune's face betrays that she has about the same expectations of our work as I do, and the two of us begin to write our group's results. Misha, on the other hand, is scrunching up her lips and very visibly trying to make heads or tails of what we're doing. Hanako is looking on quietly, absorbing what we write and what I say. She usually has this same expression when the teacher speaks. It's a shame her attendance is so unreliable. With the way she takes in information, I think she'd do quite well in class, if she actually followed the lessons regularly. I wonder if this might be why Shizune seems so hard on her."

MISHA: "Hey, Hanako, do you understand this~?"

NARRATOR: "Misha looks to Hanako, but I suspect her hope is more to find a comrade in ignorance rather than genuine help."

HANAKO: "I-I... um... n-not really... I g-guess..."

NARRATOR: "I'm surprised by how tense she is in answering, but she settles back down. She breathes out, and the way her upper body and head lower reminds me of a deflating balloon."

HISAO: "You okay? I could go over this bit if you want."

NARRATOR: "Hanako shakes her head slightly, but then again, I don't think she needs the extra explanation despite what she said. Misha quickly interjects, entirely oblivious, and I end up slowly going through how we ended up at one of our results, step by step. Times like this remind me that this kind of work may not be mechanical for everyone, but rather feels that way to me due to my grasp of the subject. It's a satisfying feeling. As Misha brings her balled fist onto an open hand in realization, I discover another nice feeling. My explanation got through to her, and she manages to work out the next equation by herself with a minimum of guidance. Throughout all of this, Hanako is unusually unresponsive. She's normally very quiet, but one can still see her eyes roving periodically over the landscape of the classroom in front of her, or anxiously moving her hands in some way, or shifting her shoulders periodically. Right now, these small movements that I've gotten used to seeing are all missing. Someone not moving at all is definitely weird. Even Misha can tell there's something wrong."

MISHA: "Hanako? Are you sure you're okay?"

HANAKO: "Y-yes..."

HISAO: "Are you sure?"

HANAKO: "I'm fine."

NARRATOR: "A little more strongly, this time, but she turns away as she says it. It only makes me doubt her answer, yet at the same time, I can tell she doesn't want to talk about it further. Having already had one very awkward conversation today that I'm still not fully over, I don't want to pursue the matter too much either. We settle back into our routine, debating over our answers whenever a doubt comes up, but as time goes on I notice that Hanako isn't talking at all. It's frustrating; she had made so much progress. It makes me a little angry at Shizune and Misha for undoing the surprise Lilly had wanted to keep secret so much. I know I'm at fault, too. Maybe I could have kept it under wraps somehow. Shizune has noticed Hanako's silence as well, and is also getting antsy. I can see it on her face. It's strange that even though she's deaf, Shizune has perceived Hanako's unusual quietness sooner than Misha."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Hanako, you're being too quiet~. You have to contribute, too~! Someday, we might work on a bigger project, like one that's so big it's worth celebrating afterwards, like with ice cream, or cake. If you act like this, we won't take you along~!"

NARRATOR: "I can tell that they're trying to tease her to bring her out of her shell, but I don't think that that kind of approach will work on Hanako. It will just make her feel worse."

HISAO: "Guys, don't tease her like that."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Hicchan, it's all in good fun~! Shicchan says she teases everyone, anyway."

NARRATOR: "They do back off, though, with Misha moving away from the issue by asking me a question again. On seeing how difficult the problem she is working on is, I don't know whether it was a skillful dodge, or mere coincidence. It takes way more of our time than necessary, because Shizune keeps disagreeing with me while I'm trying to explain it to Misha, and Misha is quick to believe her over me. So quick, in fact, that she forgets to translate what Shizune is saying." HISAO: "Hey, the clock is kind of ticking down. We should speed up a little."

MISHA: "Hicchan~! You sound a little like Shicchan, there..."

HISAO: "Just because I looked at my watch? Jeez, is that really all it takes? Time management, and suddenly I'm the Student Council president?"

Hanako's in class despair

NARRATOR: "I look at Hanako's desk to see how she's doing, and freeze. Our papers are covered in equations, but Hanako's only halfway there. It seems like she hasn't written anything in the past twenty minutes. When I realize that, I want to kick myself for how dumb I've been. I should have known that someone as fragile as Hanako wasn't just going to brush off what happened so easily, but I've been too eager to move on from an awkward situation to notice. She has been slowly shutting down for the last half hour, and I had no clue. Her pen is still in her hand, but she doesn't slowly spin it around like she usually does. There isn't a single idle movement from Hanako. Only the fact that she tries to inch away once she feels Shizune, Misha and I looking at her tells me that she is even still conscious."

NARRATOR: "We look away, and at least in my case, it's partly out of shame that it's gotten to this point. Though on the outside she has shut down almost completely, I know that it's a different story on the inside. What kinds of things could she be thinking about as she tries harder and harder to shrink into herself, as if by willing it she could somehow disappear? Everyone is looking at her, now, stealing quick glances inbetween putting the finishing touches on their work. Misha attempts to ask her what's wrong, but that only makes the problem worse. If she weren't frozen to her seat, she would probably run out of the room right now. Misha's questions are loud enough to be heard throughout the entire classroom, and for a second I'm ready to snap at her, because I can only imagine how much worse it's making Hanako feel. Of course, if I were to do that, it would only make the situation worse. I'd believed that Hanako had gotten stronger, and she has, but it wasn't enough, and I was too eager to believe it. Now, she's terrified, alone in the middle of the classroom, and there's nothing I can do without drawing more attention to her."

NARRATOR: "It's infuriating. Misha's worried, and even Shizune is biting her lip. None of us know how to deal with this situation, so I decide to call Mutou. His judgment would probably be better than ours. I look up and manage to catch his eye, silently motioning for him to come over. I want to make as little a fuss about this as possible, since if there's anything that would make this worse, it's more attention being focused on her. I know that Hanako can see everyone staring at our group. Specifically, at her. Because they know that if there's a problem, it has to be her. Everyone knows her, and it's the first thing anyone's mind would leap to. Her reputation for being a truant has marked her as an unusual person, even in unusual Yamaku. Who knows how many times they have stared at her before. Maybe it's because she's seen the class staring at her so much that she fears their gazes like she does, cowering from them. The time it takes Mutou to walk over must be like an eternity to Hanako, and she looks as if she is about to fall over. Mutou quietly begins to ask us what's wrong, before catching himself as he sees Hanako."

MISHA: "Did... did we upset her...?"

MUTOU: "Don't worry."

NARRATOR: "Mutou bends down after calming Misha and looks intently at Hanako's face."

MUTOU: "Hi, Ikezawa. Can I help you at all?"

NARRATOR: "His voice is hushed and gentle. Everyone's acting so differently around Hanako now that the whole class has noticed something's wrong with her. Hanako doesn't respond, so Mutou gently rests a hand on her shoulder. She starts shaking at his touch, but won't even look up. Hanako continues to stare into the equations on her desk, vision so unfocused that I doubt she even sees them. She is worse than before. I remember that not even an hour ago, she was able to talk to him almost normally. Mutou grimaces a bit as he stands again, and now that his expression's changed, I can see he wasn't exactly unaffected by what happened either. He takes a breath to settle himself before speaking in a very quiet voice. I'm a little impressed at how quickly he takes control of the situation."

MUTOU: "Is that it? Nothing's wrong, then?"

NARRATOR: "Mutou seems to say that to no one in particular. However, his words sound convincing enough that most of the people who were looking over at Hanako now turn away, getting back to their work. He gives a quick glance to his left and right. Several people at the desks around us are still staring curiously, but other than that, we seem to have escaped attracting too much attention. Mutou notices me doing the same as him and smiles a little, in his usual stilted way."

MUTOU: "I think, for Ikezawa's sake, that it would be good to quickly take her somewhere away from others. Nakai, Hakamichi; could you please take Ikezawa out of the classroom? I'll keep everyone settled, so please don't worry about anything but her, okay?"

NARRATOR: "He looks at Misha to tell her to interpret his words for Shizune, but she's already finishing her translation by the time he does so. It's remarkable how little thought she needs to sign, as she still looks quite dazed otherwise. Nodding, Shizune and I stand and move to either side of Hanako. Mutou steps back to allow us some room, and talks to the table behind us as some people there have begun to mutter between themselves about what's going on. We look at each other before lowering ourselves in unison, taking one arm around each of our shoulders and lifting. The two of us begin to walk, at a slow pace to make sure we don't inadvertently hurt her. As much as we try to make this look normal, I'm quite sure there would be many more gazes on us if not for Mutou's distraction. Eventually, thankfully, we reach the door and go through." NARRATOR: "Nobody's outside, so we walk down the hallway. It doesn't seem like it's making her more at ease than she was in the classroom. Finally, I ask if she wants to just sit down. For a while, we simply stay in place and wait for her to say something. Shizune tentatively rubs Hanako's shoulder a little, but there's no response. Eventually, she shakes her head a little when Shizune tries again. Both of us are looking at her, so we pick up on it immediately. Shizune's hand again comes to rest on Hanako's shoulder as she awakens, her face lifting to two very worried and anxious people looking at her."

NARRATOR: "She looks at us silently for a while. I'm initially worried she might freak out or do something extreme, but those fears prove unwarranted as her expression slowly changes from an almost lifeless blank state to a more normal withdrawn shyness. She wordlessly lowers her head, her eyes evasively moving to the side. She looks embarrassed, almost ashamed. I want to say something, anything, to help. I can't, though. I don't really know what just happened, or even what caused it. I feel helpless, and ashamed of myself for not being of any use. Shizune sighs before looking at me. Even without words, I think I can tell what she's asking."

HISAO: "I'll take Hanako to the nurse. Is that okay by you?"

NARRATOR: "I try to communicate my intentions through hand gestures, but I don't feel like I manage to get through to her very well. Shizune makes a dreary face in response to my gesticulations, confirming my impression. She stabs her finger in the air decisively, first at me, then at Hanako, and then towards the stairs. She waits for me to nod before pointing at herself, then pointing at the door to the classroom. I get the feeling Shizune is much better at this than I am. I nod at her, since her plan is after all the same as mine. Shizune gets ready to make her exit, but she only leaves after looking at Hanako for quite some time."

HISAO: "Are you okay with me taking you to the nurse's office?"

NARRATOR: "Hanako doesn't say anything or nod, but she stands up in place by herself, and when I begin to walk, she obediently follows. I've read about people being catatonic before, but I think this time I'm seeing it for myself. She looks extremely tired. After everything that's happened, it's not a surprise. After Hanako silently takes off her shoes and lies on the bed in the infirmary, the nurse and I take our leave. He shuts the curtain behind us. We both take a seat, and I quietly and thoroughly go through everything that happened, in quite some detail. I want to understand what happened, and the nurse has as good a chance as anyone of knowing. He nods throughout my explanation, his face looking troubled as I finish."

NURSE: "It must have been very troubling for you to have seen all this."

HISAO: "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. I get that she fainted, but I don't really understand anything about why it happened or why she's acting like this."

NARRATOR: "He nods, but his face is clouded."

HISAO: "You don't know either?"

NURSE: "Well... yes and no. It's complicated. I assume you've heard about the concept of patient confidentiality at some point? This is a bit of a minefield in that respect. I'm going to put this pretty bluntly; this is a matter for Ikezawa, me, and her therapist."

NARRATOR: "I move to protest, but think better of it. I want to deny what he says, but if I think this through rationally, what he says makes perfect sense."

HISAO: "I understand."

NURSE: "Good, good. I wish I could help you more, but I think what Ikezawa needs right now isn't somebody prying into her past or her emotions. She just needs somebody to be there for her. She needs a friend. For what it's worth, I think you've done well in bringing her here. Sounds like you and your friends dealt with the situation well, too. I'd give you a lollipop or a sticker as a reward, but you might be a little too old for either."

NARRATOR: "He gives a cocky grin, obviously trying his best to lighten the atmosphere. I'm not really in a laughing mood, but he does manage to get a smile out of me."

HISAO: "Thanks. Um, do you mind if I stay here with Hanako?"

NURSE: "I appreciate the thought, but I think it would be better to let her rest for now. She'll be let back to her dormitory room this evening, so you could visit her then."

NARRATOR: "I agree with him before standing. It feels like all I can ever do around the nurse is humbly agree to what he says, but it was the same with the doctors in the hospital, too. The walk back to the classroom is a long one, my mind feeling heavy under the weight of so many things happening so suddenly. Even as I reenter the classroom, I'm thinking about Hanako. My stomach feels like it's turning into knots while I think about how to deal with her. I still don't know what I'm going to say when I see her again. Thankfully, the class doesn't pay me much heed. There are a couple of questioning glances, but overall not many people seem to be very aware of what happened. Mutou raises his eyebrows to get my attention when I pass by his desk."

MUTOU: "Nakai... I take it Ikezawa is in the infirmary now?"

HISAO: "Yeah. I took her there, and the nurse said I should let her rest."

NARRATOR: "Mutou nods, assuring me that I made the right call. He scratches his chin for a second before rising from his desk."

MUTOU: "Everyone, I want you to continue with the exercise. Nakai, I'll see you in the hallway, please."

NARRATOR: "His speech is hushed, but overall he doesn't seem to be acting too differently from how he usually does. Being a teacher, maybe it's to be expected. As we go out into the hallway, I notice him taking a quick glance left and right to check if there are any students milling around. The hallway is nearly soundless, but I can't think of anything except waiting for Mutou to speak."

MUTOU: "Nakai, what do you think the purpose of this school is?"

HISAO: "Umm... to cater to the needs of disabled students?"

NARRATOR: "Mutou scratches his head as he shakes it."

MUTOU: "No. If we wanted to do that we would have built a whole new school from scratch. One floor. Talking whiteboards. That kind of thing. Look around, Nakai. This school is about giving you all a future that you would have been denied in regular education."

HISAO: "Huh?"

MUTOU: "Think of it this way. If we wanted you to graduate and go straight into a hospital, do you think we'd put in this much effort?"

NARRATOR: "The bluntness of Mutou's statement temporarily stuns me, causing me to forget about the immediate situation."

HISAO: "No..."

MUTOU: "That's right. We want you all to leave here as useful members of society."

HISAO: "I'm... not quite sure I'm following you..."

MUTOU: "I have high hopes for you, Nakai. You are possibly the first student I've had that gets my lectures."

NARRATOR: "That isn't something that a teacher should be admitting so freely."

MUTOU: "You could easily take your studies of science well into university. Have you ever considered that?"

HISAO: "I can't say I have."

MUTOU: "Well, what have you considered? For your future, that is..."

HISAO: "I... can't say that I've put much thought into my future."

NARRATOR: "For a moment I'm distinctly reminded of Lilly questioning me about the same subject. It's only been a little over five months since I was gasping for air on the ground. It's too soon to be thinking about the future, and besides, Hanako's problems seem much bigger to me right now. Mutou gives a disapproving sigh before continuing."

MUTOU: "Think of this place as an opportunity. Here you have boundless facilities, good teachers, plus the added bonus of the nurse and his staff. You should be doing nothing but thinking of the future."

HISAO: "Er... right."

NARRATOR: "As I raise my head to meet his gaze, a thought occurs to me; it's almost like Mutou totally side-stepped the issue at hand."

HISAO: "Excuse me, but why do none of the staff seem to care when Hanako skips class? I've seen you watch her walk out of class more than once. Shouldn't you at least say something?"

MUTOU: "Well, Nakai, it's not really that simple. Every student here has special needs; if it weren't for that then we wouldn't have a school here. For example, I wouldn't keep you in class if you were having trouble breathing, would I?"

HISAO: "But that's not..."

NARRATOR: "Mutou cuts me off before I can even think about finishing my sentence."

MUTOU: "Ikezawa's case is very much like that. But instead of CPR or a pacemaker, what she needs is time and space. The faculty was made aware of this from the day she arrived here, thus whenever she feels the need to leave classes, we let her do so. And even though she isn't a star pupil, she seems to pass all of her exams, so it hasn't affected her ability to study. Isn't that enough?"

NARRATOR: "I open my mouth to protest, but I can't find a fault in his argument. While her condition does at first seem to be wholly physiological, its worst effects have been on her psyche. It still puts me off, though. Isn't he just passing on the responsibility for her problem? Surely she can't go like this for her entire life."

MUTOU: "I understand that you might not be used to this kind of thing yet. It's been a big change for you. That said, it's less than a year until graduation now. Maybe you won't have to get used to this school. If you keep your head down, I'm sure you'll do well enough in your exams."

NARRATOR: "I numbly nod, more to simply acknowledge that I'm listening than out of agreement. I felt like I was getting used to this school, but it feels like it's just been thrown back in my face."

HISAO: "But... what about Hanako?"

MUTOU: "I believe... well, I hope, that she will perform well enough to do what she wants to do. What that is, I don't know. Not all students leave school with an idea of what they want to do, unfortunately."

NARRATOR: "He takes care to emphasize the last word, as if it wasn't quite clear enough already, and gives me a moment to mull his words over."

MUTOU: "Today's been a troublesome day for you, and I doubt you'd be able to concentrate much anyway after all that's happened, so I'll allow you to take the rest of the day off. Your marks have been good in this class so far, which makes me think you won't have any trouble catching up on what we've been doing."

NARRATOR: "He gives a small smile along with his praise, as if to make up for the seriousness of his lecturing before now."

MUTOU: "Go collect your things, and I'll see you tomorrow."

HISAO: "Right. Thank you."

NARRATOR: "Mutou's round-about speech has left my thoughts scattered. I'm still not any closer to working out what I can do to help Hanako, if anything, and my mind is all the more confused after what Mutou's said. I'm also still bothered by the fact that Hanako was helped at least as much by Shizune, her enemy-by-proxy, as by myself, but I don't know whether that is just male bravado or a genuine concern. While I collect Hanako's and my things from the class, I continue to try and sort out my feelings. I want to say that I understand her, and that I'm there for her... but while I might have been able to say that just yesterday, I can't say it now. I wish I could."

Next Scene: Treading Softly